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Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Alfredson tinkers with le Carré's spy classic
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 4, 2012
3.5 3.5 Stars

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WORKS FOR ME All of Oldman’s more extreme roles — from Sid Vicious to Sirius Black — inform and enhance his performance as the repressed Smiley.


Aside from the obvious differences — a knack for Quidditch for example — George Smiley might be considered the Cold War equivalent of Harry Potter. Both sport owlish glasses and old-school ties (Oxford and Hogwarts, respectively). Both have covert powers and dwell in alternative universes, with their glossaries of arcane jargon. Both deal with "witchcraft" — for Smiley, a code word for a problematic source of Kremlin intelligence. More significantly, both battle a monolithic evil that might merely be a mirror of their own darkest natures, posing moral ambiguity that evokes an atmosphere of despair. Kind of like a visit from the Death Eaters.

>> INTERVIEWGary Oldman not spooked by Guinness's Smiley by Patrick McGavin <<

In his seven-part 1979 BBC adaptation of the John le Carré novel (now on DVD from Acorn), made when the events referred to in the book were still contemporary, John Irvin captured that mood of gloom and doom with the suffocating intensity of the present tense haunted by the past. But for director Tomas Alfredson, this is a period piece, and as he did in Let the Right One In, he re-creates the '70s without nostalgia but with all its pervasive ennui and disillusionment.

In this grimy, oppressive setting Alfredson unfolds le Carré's complex tale with cold efficiency, though it might be rough going for those who have not read the book. It begins with Control (John Hurt), head of the British intelligence branch called the Circus, sending veteran operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) behind the Iron Curtain to determine whether a Soviet mole has infiltrated the agency. The mission ends in a bloody debacle, and Control and his second-in-command, Smiley (Gary Oldman), are sacked.

Until, that is, a rogue British agent comes in from the cold with new information, and the government recalls Smiley to investigate his old department. And so he does, and by parsing records, interrogating witnesses, and indulging in the inevitable flashbacks, he sorts out the secret history of a service that started in the glory of World War II only to endure the doubts and deceptions of the peace that followed.

Alfredson demonstrates shrewdness both in his condensation of the text and his deviations from it. The Prideaux disaster, for example, takes place not at the generic border crossing of the original but at a quaint outdoor café in Budapest; the details underscore the irony and tragedy. And in a masterful balancing of tone and tension, the various participants in the tapping of a phone call are united in their response to an overheard tune on the radio.

The casting is another matter. As Guillam, Smiley's war-weary right-hand man, Benedict Cumberbatch seems too callow. Toby Jones as the toffee-nosed Alleline, Control's successor as head of the Circus, is a little undernourished. But as the bon vivant Haydon, Smiley's pal and his replacement in the Circus, Colin Firth brings a beguiling polymorphous perversity. 

>> INTERVIEWGary Oldman not spooked by Guinness's Smiley by Patrick McGavin <<

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  Topics: Reviews , Movies, Gary Oldman, John le Carre,  More more >
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